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The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently published an opinion in which it held that the exclusionary rule cannot be used against police officers in a civil suit.
In Black v. Wigington, 15-10848, 2016 WL 278918 (11th Cir. Jan. 22, 2016), the plaintiffs sued several sheriff’s deputies for malicious prosecution. Because an officer cannot be liable for malicious prosecution if the arrest is supported by probable cause, the key inquiry was whether probable cause supported the plaintiffs’ arrests. The officers argued that evidence found during their search of the plaintiffs’ home provided probable cause, while the plaintiffs argued that the evidence could not provide probable cause because the search was illegal.
During the plaintiffs’ criminal trial, the superior court determined that the search was unlawful. As a result, the superior court applied the exclusionary rule, suppressing all evidence associated with the search, resulting in a dismissal of the criminal charges. The Eleventh Circuit held, however, that the exclusionary rule does not apply in a civil suit against police officers. As a result, the court considered the evidence found during the unlawful search and concluded that probable cause existed for the prosecution of plaintiffs. For that reason, the malicious prosecution claim failed. The court, however, made clear that plaintiffs may still sue officers for an illegal search.
As the court observed, the exclusionary rule is not a “personal constitutional right” or a requirement of the Fourth Amendment; it is a “judicially created remedy” which applies in the criminal context, only. The court reasoned that the cost of applying the exclusionary rule in civil suits against officers is significant because officers could be forced to pay damages based on “an overly truncated version of the evidence.” Although the exclusionary rule prevents illegally gathered evidence from being used in a criminal trial, it does not apply in a civil suit alleging false arrest and malicious prosecution.